Heirloom Squash Variety
From the Prehistoric Americans to the
Native Americans to the Immigrant Americans –
The Vegetable That Nourished A Nation
Squash have been a staple of the American diet since the first prehistoric peoples entered North America via the land bridge from Asia. Squash and pumpkins are native to many parts of the North American, Central American and South American regions. They were a significant part of the 3 sisters trinity – beans, corn and squash. The Native Americans used squash in all aspects of their lives and culture. The vegetable was made into soups, breads, desserts, stuffings, storage containers, musical instruments, utensils, etc. The Native Americans shared their knowledge of this vegetable with the Europeans who adopted many of the culinary practices they were taught.
Today, squash and pumpkins remain an important part of the American diet and culture. If you have a backyard vegetable garden or you are a community gardener you probably grow some variety/varieties of squash. If you are a part of a family with young or teenage children, each fall you probably carve at least one pumpkin for Halloween. Winter squash stores with very little effort throughout the winter. Most varieties will survive until early spring. Summer squash, especially zucchinis, are so prolific that by mid-summer most gardeners have filled their freezers with zucchini bread and are daily yelling at their plants, “Quit, already, quit!”
Squash grow best when planted directly in the garden from seed. The most frequently made mistake by gardeners is planting squash TOO EARLY or starting squash indoors and planting the seedlings too early. Squash seed germinates best when planted in warm soil where the soil temperature is at least 75 degrees. The seed will germinate in about 5 days and the plants will be much stronger and more productive than seed planted in cold soil or seedlings.
The other problem with planting squash too early is squash borer. Around the third week of June each year, Harvesting History will be inundated with calls from desperate gardeners asking us if there is any way to protect their squash plants from squash borers.
Well, there is, but most callers do not like the answer.
The way to protect your squash from squash borers is to plant the squash, FROM SEED, in late June in Hardiness Zones 4-7 and early April in Hardiness Zones 8-10.
Squash Borers are native to the US, east of the Rocky Mountains. The borer is the larva stage of the Clearwing Moth. The Clearwing Moth is a wasplike insect with copper-green forewings and orange and black abdomen. The borer winters over in a cocoon located 1-2 inches below the surface of the soil. The Clearwing Moth hatches out of its cocoon when the squash vine begins to vine and lays single, oval, brown eggs on the stems and leaf stalks of the vine.The borers hatch in about a week and tunnel into the vine to eat. After feeding from 4-6 weeks, the borer returns to the soil where it builds a cocoon and rests for the winter.
In the Gulf Coast region of the South, there are two generations of the borer, so our advice is not so effective along the Gulf Coast, but for the rest of the US, planting your squash in late June or early July after the borers have finished eating and are buried in the soil will eliminate or reduce the problem.
Much of the information that will be shared with you in this newsletter comes from one of the most remarkable horticultural books ever written, The Compleat Squash, by Amy Goldman. There is no better book on the subject of squash and pumpkins.
In 1901, in Milan, Italy, a long, slender, cylindrical, dark green squash borne on a bush plant was offered for sale in the Italian marketplace. As with most squash, it is believed that this ‘zucchini’ was the result of a fortuitous, but accidental, cross pollination. The fruit became instantly popular and was probably brought to the US by Italian immigrants soon after its introduction in Milan.
Zucchinis have a very specific definition. A zucchini is uniformly cylindrical with little or no taper. Its length to greatest width ratio equals or exceeds 3.5 and tops out at 5.0. No kidding!! Cocozelles, which many of us think are just striped zucchinis, are not striped zucchinis. While a zucchini’s optimum length is approximately 8 inches, a cocozelle’s optimum length is 4-6 inches.
Amy Goldman once wrote, “It’s almost impossible to describe the taste of something (summer squash) that has none – until it is sautéed in garlic and olive oil…”
This is all that can be said about the flavor of zucchinis and cocozelles until the sautéing has begun…and then the flavor that is aroused through this gentle cooking process is addicting, and so much so that now generations of mankind throughout the planet never pass a summer without consuming the marvelous zucchini and its relative, the cocozelle.
Unlike the zucchini, the Cocozelles (which look like striped zucchinis to most of us) have been known and cultivated since the Renaissance. The varieties are usually specific to a town or region in Italy like Lunga di Toscana, Genovese and Alberello di Sarzane.
In Europe, the cocozelles and the zucchinis are often referred to as gourds. If left to harden and dry some, but not all, varieties may behave as gourds.
In 1885, the famous French seedhouse, Vilmorin-Andrieux, described the cocozelles in this way,
“All through Italy where this Gourd is very commonly grown, the fruit is eaten quite young, when it is hardly the size of a small Cucumber, sometimes even before the flower has opened, when the ovary, which is scarcely as long or as thick as the finger, is gathered for use. The plants, which are thus deprived of their undeveloped fruits, continue to flower for several months profusely, each producing a great number of young Gourds, which, gathered in that state, are exceedingly tender and delicately flavored.”
The cocozelles are harvested when they are 4-6 inches long and often with their flowers attached as you can see from the picture, which was taken in a marketplace in a small town near Siena, Italy. They are usually fried, not sautéed.
Some members of the family of squash known as scallops or pattypans are among the oldest squash known to mankind. The White Bush Scallop was grown by Native Americans long before the coming of any Europeans to the Americas. It was known in Europe before the 1600s. This squash is also called “symnel” or “cymling”.
Like zucchinis, the scallops are borne on bush plants which are very productive, and they do not take up much room in the garden. Unlike zucchinis which are usually prepared by sautéing, the pattypans are usually baked.
White Bush Scallop matures very quickly, usually in 45-55 days. They are best when harvested at 5-7 inches in diameter. They will toughen if allowed to remain on the bush too long.
I suspect that the Pennsylvania Dutch Crookneck Pumpkin is either the same as or very, very closely related to the Canada Crookneck, an old American squash known prior to the 1830’s. For years, I wondered if there was a rare variety of pumpkin-like vegetable known as the ‘neckpunkin’ until it was explained to me that the name was really two words ‘neck’ and ‘pumpkin’. These squash have a richly flavored orange flesh that makes excellent pies, soups and baked squash.
The necks are solid flesh – no seeds. In fact, the fruit produce very few seeds for their size – 5+ pounds. These squash were extremely popular in the 1800s because of their extraordinary storage characteristics. They would last for 6-8 months and some who know them say that the older they were the sweeter the flesh.
Grant Thorburn, one of America’s first seedsmen, is given credit for introducing the variety to Americans in 1834. The popularity of the crooknecks began to decline in the 20th century when in the 1930s, the butternut squash was introduced. Butternuts were a naturally occurring mutation of the crooknecks. The absence of the crooked neck for some reason was more attractive to Americans. I think the absence of the crooked neck took the character out of the squash.
One of the most delightful descriptions in a book filled with delightful stories, The Compleat Squash, by Amy Goldman, is Amy Goldman’s story of the banana squash. She thinks they are a splendid group, but her favorites are the blue bananas – very rare. Harvesting History can reliably obtain seed for the pink bananas and so that is the variety with which we are familiar.
If I could only grow one winter squash, it would be this one. I find the orange flesh rich in flavor and not the slightest bit stringy. It is not a pie or a soup squash, but it makes marvelous baked squash.
According to Amy, banana squash are very old and probably indigenous to South America, not Central America and Mexico. Amy relates that in an 800 year old burial site located along the coast of Peru, seeds were found that match today’s banana squash.
Banana squash has always been a rarity in the US. It was first introduced by Shumway’s in 1893 and never really caught on except on the West Coast. That does not say much for the rest of us, because these are great squash.
This newsletter has tried, for the most part, to teach you about some interesting vegetables, flowers and herbs and their histories. We have been reticent to describe popular or well known varieties, opting instead, for many little known varieties, but today we are going to discuss one of the best known and most beloved vegetables of 20th and 21st century America – The Waltham Butternut Squash.
According to research by Amy Goldman and related in her classic book, The Compleat Squash, the butternut squashes developed from the crookneck squashes and specifically, one crookneck, the Canada Crookneck. Crooknecks are notorious for frequently spawning mutants whose necks are not crooked and sometimes very short. These mutant crooknecks occurred so frequently that they became known as butternuts.
The very first butternut offered for commercial sale was introduced by Joseph Breck & Son in Boston, MA in 1936. In 1956, after years of work crossing Taurukubi squash with these mutant crooknecks known as Butternuts, Elwyn Meader and A. F. Yeager introduced The New Hampshire Butternut.
Twelve years later in 1968, Robert Young of the Waltham Agricultural Experiment Station, introduced the Waltham Butternut Squash which he had developed by crossing The New Hampshire Butternut with a neckless squash from Turkey. The result was a larger, more stable and blockier fruit and it became extremely popular in a few short years.
Technically, Waltham Butternut officially became an heirloom in 2018, but if one of the definitions of ‘Heirloom’ is “beloved by many for a long, long time” then Waltham Butternut has been an heirloom for a long, long time.
All squash can be easily grown in containers. The Bush varieties, like zucchini and cocozelles, can be grown one plant per 14 inch container. The vining varieties, like the winter squash, can be grown 2 plants to an 18 inch container, but the vines must be allowed to grow out of the container and the fruit usually matures on the ground next to the container.
Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash was introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1981 by Tom Knoche who had received some seeds from Evert Pettit who in turn had received seeds from Mrs. Thelma Sanders of Adair County, Missouri. The Seed Savers Exchange has not been able to trace the origin beyond this point, but The Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash is believed to be much older than its 1980 introduction. This 4-5 lb. acorn squash has richly flavored flesh and is an excellent storage squash. The vines usually produce 3-5 fruit in a season.
Pumpkins are a great way to introduce children to the art of raising winter squash, but if you have the space (and you don’t need much, 4 feet by 4 feet) and the inclination to be adventuresome and a couple of spare children and some vegetable spaghetti squash seeds, you have the ingredients for a delightful horticultural odyssey.
Amy Goldman in her extraordinary book, The Compleat Squash, discusses vegetable spaghetti with this whimsical statement:
”What kid, or adult for that matter hasn’t dreamed about growing her own spaghetti and meatballs? I have no remedy for the meatballs, but I can help with the spaghetti. Vegetable Spaghetti is the closest thing to pasta since durum wheat. Until this squash came along in the 1930s and turned stringiness into a virtue, vegetable marrows had never been popular in North America. Vegetable Spaghetti defies convention. It is sweet golden fiber, and we are lapping it up – with butter and cheese, pesto, alfredo, marinara, and, yes, meatballs.”
Vegetable Spaghetti squash came from northern Manchuria where numerous varieties are commonplace and was commercialized by Sakata Seed Company of Yokohama, Japan in 1934.
Burpee brought it to America in 1936. The ‘flesh’ of this squash is really an organized spiral of strong spaghetti-like fibers. When cooked and sliced lengthwise in half, a child can plunge a fork into the center and begin twirling. The resulting spaghetti fibers are fascinating and delicious.
So, in Amy Goldman’s words, “If the mere thought of eating squash has turned your stomach, if as a parent you’ve failed to find a vegetable your child will eat, then Vegetable Spaghetti is for you.”
Don’t miss our Saturday,
5-25- 2019 annual newsletter celebrating:
The Memorial Day Flower
The Story of The Red American Legion Poppy
Our 13th Annual New Freedom Plant Sale will take place Saturday and Sunday, May 18 and 19, 2019 from
9:00-4:00 at our usual site, the New Freedom Business Park parking lot to the right of 60 East High Street,
New Freedom, PA 17349.